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  WINDY CITY TIMES

The Merion offers an LGBT-inclusive senior living experience
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2018-11-14

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Nestled three short blocks away from Lake Michigan in downtown Evanston, the Merion offers older adults a place to live and thrive while also meeting their needs as they age.

According to its website, the Merion is "a small community of diverse individuals where you are a name, and not just a number. A place to grow intellectually and socially, helped by inventive programming and a fantastic social community where everyone takes care of one another. It is a place for people who desire a simpler, yet engaging lifestyle supported by an uncomplicated rental plan where residents and staff celebrate culture, learning, diversity and inclusivity and embrace confidence-inspiring, easily accessible and comprehensive health services."

Recently, the Merion became the first Illinois senior living community to earn a SAGECare credential. It joins the almost 300 senior care providers and organizations nationwide to receive this credential from SAGE ( Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders ), the nation's largest advocacy and services organization for LGBT elders.

The credential required that the Merion's upper management staff complete a four-hour intensive LGBT cultural competency training program. Caregivers and team members completed one-hour in-person training, and all management and staff members will receive ongoing training and support.

Training topics included the needs of LGBT seniors, tools to reduce and respond to bias behavior and an overview of federal protections. The Merion subsequently made changes to its policies and intake forms to be more inclusive.

What spurred the Merion's leadership staff to get the SAGECare credential was a story they read about Marsha Wetzel, a lesbian who was physically attacked and verbally harassed with anti-LGBT comments at Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, where she had lived for 15 months. Wetzel sued the facility and, after the trial court dismissed her claim, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor; now the case has been returned to the lower court.

"We are honored to receive the Platinum SAGECare credential, which means 80 percent of our entire staff attended the training," said the Merion's marketing coordinator and community outreach manager, RJ Alban. "Most importantly, it is the right thing to do, and we wanted to make sure people who live or work at the Merion never feel discriminated against. Older adults who want the lifestyle and wellness benefits from a senior living community that provide high quality services, amenities and care should feel welcome, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Residents' LGBT kids, friends and extended family should feel welcome in our community as well. We have a saying: 'The More, the Merion,' and we try to live it every day."

"We are proud to be the first in the state to earn this distinction, to demonstrate our inclusive environment and dedication to serve a growing population of older adults," added General Manager Vicki Botefuhr. "No one should be discriminated against or feel isolated like so many LGBT seniors unfortunately do. Our staff is trained to foster a supportive environment."

"We at SAGE could not be more pleased about The Merion receiving their Platinum SAGECare Credential," said SAGECare CEO Tim Johnston. "The leadership at the Merion strongly believes that all of their residents should receive the highest standard of care, and that includes LGBT seniors, and this credential helps them communicate that commitment to the community."

According to SAGE, conservative estimates suggest both that there are three million LGBT people aged 55 and older and that the number will double in the next two decades as the Baby Boomers retire. Of this number, approximately 56,000 LGBT adults 45 and older live in Chicago.

Currently many seniors, and especially LGBT seniors, have opted to age in-place rather than move to a senior living facility due to many factors. According to MerionCares Manager and Social Worker Anne Ryan, that is detrimental to their physical and intellectual wellness because they do not experience enough social interaction.

"Social wellness means connecting with others, sharing experiences and opportunities to interact," said Ryan. "LGBT seniors who age-in-place experience higher rates of isolation and do not get the social activity they need. Doctors say isolation is a killer. We have heard numerous times it is as dangerous as long-term smoking. It is sad to see older adults who are unable to experience this key dimension of wellness.

"Studies have shown that people in a community like ours live an average of two good years longer than their homebound counterparts. LGBT elders are more likely to not have children, more likely to be supported by friends who are age-peers, and their support networks and social wellness can evaporate very rapidly in their golden years."

One of the Merion's lesbian residents, Judith ( who has asked that her last name not be disclosed ), is an 80-year-old retired physical therapist.

"I was married to a man for 20 years and when I divorced him and came out, I felt as if I had been released from a jail I did not know I had been keeping myself in," said Judith. "I did not want to follow someone else's script for my life."

Judith said the idea to live at the Merion was her daughter-in-law's, and at first she was not sold on living there. After visiting the facility multiple times, however, she felt like it was the right community for her.

"I was tired of cooking for myself and feeling isolated," said Judith. "I needed a place like the Merion and I am glad I am here. I have been here for four months and my son comes to visit me often. I have found friends and a wonderful, active life here."

In terms of living in an LGBT-inclusive community, Judith said it has been liberating and caused her to open up about her life to more people. Her favorite things to do at the Merion are Barbara Meyer's integrated movement class, music classes and going to the pool.

"This change has been a feather in my cap, and I feel safer in this community than any other place I have lived," said Judith. "I would recommend the Merion in a heartbeat. I take the best walks by the lake and through Northwestern University. I feel safe, and the people and the food are so good. Make the change before you feel like you are ready, and while you can enjoy it."

"At the Merion, we consistently host educational events on senior health and wellness topics, as well as LGBT-related topics," said Ryan. "We have some planned for this fall and welcome you to attend."

See MerionEvanston.com or call 847-570-7815 for more information.


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